Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi


12 March 2020

If I was surprised when I first moved to the UK how much socialising revolved around getting together and drinking alcohol, I was even more surprised when I later moved to Finland. There, a startling amount of social contact centred on getting together and hunting for mushrooms.

I’d moved to Helsinki to start an MFA and in the first week of the programme, one of my courses consisted of the class assembling together in a nearby national forest to learn how to identify and forage for mushrooms. Once in the forest, the uninformed among us immediately gravitated towards the brilliant jewel tones of red-capped fly agaric and the beguiling paleness of destroying angel mushrooms while our guide looked on in despair. If it’s beautiful and a mushroom, he said, it will probably kill you. Or at least make you rather ill. The stalwarts of Finnish kitchens – mushrooms like funnel chanterelles and boletes – were far more ordinary-looking, disguised on the forest floor in a multitude of browns, creams and dull yellows. Not so when we finally cooked them in a huge cauldron over an open camp fire; some of those brown mushrooms turned our stew a shocking bright blue. Not to worry, our teacher and resident mushroom expert assured us, it’s merely the oxidisation of the bolete’s variegatic acid that turns the mushroom that colour.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I were invited to spend a weekend in the countryside with a Finnish artist. Rather than discuss art or relax in their studio, to our surprise, most of the weekend passed in a blur of mushroom foraging and eating. In Finland, mushroom picking is a popular autumnal activity for friends and families, but because of the country’s “Everyman Rights” – in which public access to land is enshrined in law – mushrooms are tightly woven into a quilt that connects cultural heritage, local natural ecologies and national identity.

Disappointingly, there’s little sense of these interconnected webs of sharing, cultivating, identifying, nurturing, researching, eating, cataloguing or storytelling about mushrooms in Somerset House’s exhibition Mushrooms: The Art, Design and Future of Fungi, curated by writer Francesca Gavin. Set across three separate rooms, Gavin has selected work by some 35 artists, designers and musicians to expand upon her chosen themes of ‘Mycophilia’, ‘Magic Mushrooms’ and ‘Fungi Futures’. In 2017, a smaller version of the exhibition was presented at galeriepcp in Paris and, since early 2019, Gavin has documented her visual research related to the show with the Instagram account @theartofmushrooms.

If certain of the artworks selected by Gavin possess charm and visual appeal, the exhibition’s crucial shortcoming is the repetitive and one-dimensional nature of what’s on display – chiefly, artists who simply represent mushrooms, whether through drawing, painting or sculpture. Despite overreaching claims to the contrary made in the exhibition’s brief catalogue, the work here is almost entirely illustrative in nature. That is, they are literally representations of mushrooms in different media. Ultimately, it becomes difficult to escape the feeling that the exhibition is curated for and by Instagram, then lifted wholesale and transposed into a gallery setting.

In the opening room dedicated to ‘Mycophilia’, for example, the wall text states (and is repeated in the catalogue) that “humanity’s long affinity with mushrooms has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years”. This statement is supported by the sweeping claim that, “for centuries in Europe, mushrooms were objects of horror and disgust, connected to witchcraft, poison and decay. It was only in the nineteenth century, with the rise of amateur botany and the appearance of mushrooms in children’s literature, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, that their reputation started to change”. Jumping from the 19th century to today, the text continues, mushrooms have transformed further still, inspiring new models of society and economics, “and been positioned by theorists as a parable for environmental renewal”. Finally, Gavin frames her exhibition as not only a celebration of the mushrooms’ historic transformation as outlined above, but also of the “power and unlimited potential of that most extraordinary of organisms”.

Rather than presenting works that support some of the claims made in the ‘Mycophilia’ text, Gavin has selected Alex Morrison’s oil on canvas paintings of mushroom wallpaper patterns and Lara Ögel’s watercolour and collage works of cut-out mushrooms and religious icons. These are placed next to Carsten Höller’s aluminium suitcase filled with solar-powered spinning red mushrooms and David Fenster’s faintly-amusing film of the artist wearing a fly agaric costume while complaining about humanity’s tendency to anthropomorphise mushrooms. While it’s wonderful to be able to look at both a large group of Beatrix Potter’s luminous 19th-century mushroom watercolours and a similarly large grouping of Cy Twombly’s Natural History Part 1. Mushrooms lithographs and collaged natural history illustrations, the exhibition’s dearth of serious interrogation and exploration of its subject means they slide, like everything else, into decoration.

Another example of this problem is artist Simon Popper’s display of a vast collection of postage stamps from around the world depicting different mushrooms. Among the dozens mounted, there’s a 1990s stamp from Trinidad and Tobago of a red-capped Crinipellis perniciosa on a stark white background; an adorably twee illustration of Macrolepiota procera from a Swedish stamp of 1978; and a drawing of what appears to be a boy scout peering through binoculars at a Termitomyces striatus on a 1986 stamp from Togo. Although it is fascinating to see the associations between certain nation states and mushrooms, the work (and, by extension, the exhibition) stops at the surface of the stamp and provides nothing more. Why are no connections made between the mushrooms on the stamps and their cultural histories or values? We learn nothing about the fact that Termitomyces mushrooms are dependent on termites to survive or that Crinipellis perniciosa, the mushroom on the Trinidad and Tobago stamp, causes “witches’ broom disease” on cocoa trees. Why would such a problematic mushroom make an appearance on a national postage stamp? Here, as elsewhere, there’s a frustrating feeling of being lured in with stories that stop just when they should be getting started.

Throughout, supplementary information or objects of a different kind – archive material, historical artefacts or scientific research, for example – would have greatly enhanced the scope and depth of the exhibition. It also would have gone some way towards lifting the burden of meaning-making from the shoulders of the contemporary art and design objects which alone aren’t up to the task.

This problem emerges again in the exhibition’s second room, where a stated emphasis on the ancient relationship between Mesoamerican peoples, certain varieties of mushrooms and altered human consciousness is expressed through a great deal of flat, banal work. The childlike graphic mushrooms of Cody Hudson’s Early (Altered Thinking Processes) acrylics on linen are charming enough for a Marimekko print, but they don’t excite much by way of deep thinking on the mind-expanding capabilities of mushrooms. Again, the wall text speaks of the fascinating research into the survival of magic mushroom use among indigenous groups in Mexico carried out by “ethnomycologist” couple Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson in the 1950s, but goes no further than including a copy of Wasson’s 1958 book in a glass vitrine of other mushroom-related literature. Valentina Wasson was an early proponent of the possible use of psychedelic mushrooms for medical purposes and, although the connection between the Wasson’s research and contemporary scientific research is not explicitly stated, the exhibition does draw attention to the latter. “The scientific community takes the use of psilocybin [a compound found in psychedelic “magic mushrooms”] very seriously, with a wave of academic research on their use to treat depression and addiction”, the wall text reads. However, in what must be judged a missed opportunity, there’s no work present that speaks to such research. Instead there are yet more drawings of mushrooms (Annie Ratti’s overdrawn pencil drawings of psychedelic mushrooms on photographic prints), and more sculptures of mushrooms (Hamish Pearch’s resin and epoxy sculptures of mushrooms growing out of burnt toast). As part of the exhibition’s events programme, there’s a one-off screening scheduled of Dartmouth Films’ 2018 Magic Medicine documentary following Imperial College medical trials offering psilocybin to volunteers suffering from clinical depression. But why couldn’t the film have been included in the exhibition instead of a separate events programme?

Instead of devising interesting solutions to the complexities of showcasing current scientific and sociological research around mushrooms in her exhibition, Gavin has succumbed to the curatorial trope of presenting “research” by placing a selection of books inside a glass vitrine. Few things in exhibitions make me more enervated than this shorthand of “making research visible” through displaying books hermetically sealed away in locked cases. Never mind that some of the books in the cases are wonderful (Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, for example). Surely, the curator’s task is to find a way of incorporating the research in the exhibition through the work on display, rather than through a languid gesture in the direction of intellectual labour carried out by someone else.

Although the exhibition is dominated by recent contemporary art, a small number of design works have been squeezed into the final and smallest room in the section considering ‘Fungi Futures’. There was talk of a specially-commissioned mycelium (the mass of fine branching tubes that form the main structure of a fungus) chair from Tom Dixon, but it hadn’t been installed when I visited the exhibition in its opening week. Another designer experimenting with mycelium, Sebastian Cox, displays a series of moulded ceiling pendant lights formed of mycelium combined with green wood waste. Although the pieces have a certain woodland charm, the application of biomaterials to commercial furniture design isn’t something I find especially stimulating.

Similarly, architectural historian and building-material technologist Mae-Ling Lokka has constructed a small wall from a series of her interlocking agro-waste-fed mycelium panels. Although the technology is intriguing, it’s presented here as little more than decoration – the backdrop for a TV monitor. How much more interesting, not to mention thought-provoking, would it have been to have situated Lokka’s work in the context of other, more commercial research on mycelium taking place in the construction industry? For example, why not show her panels alongside a display of the mycelium building insulation currently being produced by Biohm, a West London start-up founded in 2016 by Ehab Sayed to research sustainable, carbon-neutral building materials?

There has been a vast amount of fascinating thinking, writing, art making and scientific research done in recent years on mushrooms – on the detoxifying properties of oyster mushrooms; on resilience and interconnectedness of various ecologies; on the ability of certain fungi to break down waste plastic; on the use of mushrooms to create pigments and dyes. Even NASA has been researching how mycelium might be used to build habitable dwellings on Mars. Why have so many expansive possibilities to engage with mushrooms in all their glorious complexity been shoved aside in favour of paintings of mushrooms, collages of mushrooms, sculptures of mushroom and stilettos made of mushrooms?

Rather than an exhibition conceived and constructed around the idea of mushrooms as a remarkable, entangled organism that functions as the basis of all ecosystems or as a symbol of resilience and hope in a moment of deep ecological crisis, Mushrooms feels like an exhibition of images cobbled together from works and artists that the curator already knew. It doesn’t help that Gavin has included eight works by her sister, Seana Gavin, in the exhibition – fantasy collaged landscapes of mushroom cities and dwellings – one of which features on the exhibition poster, and another on the cover of the catalogue. There is a truly superb exhibition to be created around the mushroom and its relationship to human societies, capitalism and climate change, but unfortunately it isn’t this one.